Text: Romans 8:12-25
Theme Verse: "But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:25)
The magic formula: we’re always looking for it and, at times, we think we’ve captured it. Do these three things and get well or get rich or get six-pack abs. Formulas have their place and can guide us successfully for a time. However, the greater challenges and deeper questions of life tend to render formulas ineffective or at least, well, formulaic. Paul suggests the dynamics of the Holy Spirit surpass an approach to faith that has about as many steps as it takes to make a peanut-butter sandwich. When the formula fails, what do you plug into for life-sustaining power?
reader : Sally Kelley
preaching : Rev Mark Briley
The first concert I ever went to was with our church youth group when I was in middle school. Amy Grant at the Hearnes Center in Columbia, Missouri – sorry if that makes me lose some of my street cred. If it helps you to think you heard me say my first concert was to see the Beastie Boys instead of Amy Grant then go with it. “Baby, Baby” was her big hit at the time and she threw in a lot of Jesus numbers like El Shaddai for good measure. It was a good time. To be honest, I haven’t gone to many big venue concerts since that first time. I love music and appreciate what it does for my soul and have gone to many smaller venues to hear artists share their hearts through the gifts they’ve been given. Last Thursday night, however, took me back to a big venue concert when we were invited to see Coldplay at the BOK Center. Some of you there, perhaps? Tulsa is such a small world. We sat right next to the grandparents of some of our neighbors – we would have never known but we chatted them up a bit and before you know it they’re saying, “Our son and his family live near such and such intersection,” and I’m all, “Us too!” and you know how it goes – six degrees of separation. It was an incredible show! Chris Martin and the boys have been writing and playing shows for twenty years now and they’re pretty dialed in. Here’s one of my cell phone pics from the night. Honestly, standing there in the presence of tens of thousands of Tulsans covered in confetti was, at times, nothing short of magical. Magical.
We’re all looking for a little magic aren’t we? Millions flock to Disney World, the most magical place on earth. We’re hoping for magical moments with the ones we love. We pray for magic when our team when they’re down by six with a second on the clock and one magical Hail Mary to come. When it comes to our diet, our fitness, and our debt, we’re always looking for that magical formula to elevate our bodies and bank accounts to the healthiest levels. Formulas have their place and it’s good when you find one that helps you be the best you, you can be. But life is dynamic – things are always changing around us; the people, the circumstances, our bodies and before you know it, the old reliable formula doesn’t have the magic it once had.
Naturally, when it comes to our journey of faith, we look to plug into formulas as well. It’s how we learn. It’s the place we start. The formula I remember on a church poster as a kid was 1 cross + 3 nails = 4given. Do you remember that? The disciples said, “Jesus, teach us to pray.” Give us the magical prayer formula – and he did and we still pray it today. The rich man says to Jesus, “What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” What’s the formula? Jesus says, “Sell all you have and give it to the poor.” At HACC, we rally around the core values of Be loved. Believe. Become. Engage in these three values and you’re on your way to a robust faith life. Is it magic?
We’ve hit the middle of a three week series entitled, “Where’s my Charger?” We’re playing on that moment that occurs all the time in your home when someone’s phone is dying and their charger is nowhere to be found. “Have you seen my charger?” When the charge is low and the power source is un-findable, what do we do? When life is hard and you’re in over your head and you’ve lost sight of Christ, where will you find enough power to pull through? It’s why we’ve got to keep connected to our spiritual Charger – especially when the trusted formulas of the past seem no longer able to keep us moving forward.
Paul was writing to a formula-driven community in Rome. The event that split history into a “before” and “after” mentality had taken place about thirty years before he wrote this letter. The event—the life, death, and resurrection of the Jesus – took place in a remote corner of an expansive Roman Empire. While the powerful of Rome were not all that moved by the hubbub for a while, the movement was beginning to grow and the church of the Way was now on the ground in Rome. How do you transform any system that’s been in place for so long? How do you teach an old dog new tricks? Religious transformation may be harder than anything. Paul’s audience was used to the law – the formulas – that connected them to God. That was their comfort zone. He sort of gives them the Jim Gaffigan intro: “I do want everyone to feel comfortable. That’s why I’d like to talk to you about Jesus.” They were into Jesus but Paul was going to push them to really trust Jesus. Paul is encouraging the people to consider their spiritual charge – the old charge promoted a tireless check-list of rules – the law. The Spirit of Christ, however, was offering a new charge, one much less formulaic yet almost magical. It was mysterious. Jesus had come offering a relationship but people were still asking for the rule book.
We are drawn to the rule book and self-help formulas too because with those in hand, religion is up to us. I can charge myself without having to rely on the Spirit of God, who must certainly be more needed in Syria right now, right? So I’ll take the formula, please. I want control. But formulas don’t hold the mystery of heart transformation. And Paul is writing to say, “Hey, you’re gonna need God for that.” God, like any living being, however, is not static but dynamic and complicated. Engaging the complicated dynamics of any relationship is way harder than spiritual hoop jumping. I always have this internal grind when I meet with couples for pre-marital counseling. It’s a time when many couples are looking for the formulas and I don’t blame them – we take this seriously and we want to do the right things to ensure a lasting and loving marriage. A set of concepts makes a better product than a relationship or so we think. Three steps to an easy marriage quickly falls flat. Love and marriage is deeper than that. My wife could never sell my love for her to someone else. Love doesn’t work that way. She could sell some of the symbols of that love we’ve accumulated over time. She could sell the movie stub from our very first date. The movie? The Waterboy staring Adam Sandler. If that makes me lose additional street cred today, pretend I took her to the more romantic, award winning film, Titanic, or, if you prefer, Rocky IV. She could sell the pictures of us kissing our kids shortly after they were born or the coaster we signed at the restaurant where we celebrated our last anniversary. She could sell her wedding ring or the wedding dress but never in a million years could she sell my love for her. When we mistake relational love for God and neighbor with concepts and formulas, we’ve fallen to idolatry. We reduce marriage to wedding rings and faith to inspirational artwork of eagles and angels. My marriage is too mysteriously magical to whittle it down to the same number of steps as it takes to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The mystery of relationship with a spouse or with God points to a depth, an open future, an immense freedom, a kind of beauty and truth that can’t be fully spoken or defined. Such is God’s love and Paul’s word about moving from the formulas to the direct charging source of the Spirit of God.
Paul says in Romans 8:4 that the “law always ends up being used as a Band-Aid on sin instead of a deep healing of it. And now what the law code asked for but we couldn’t deliver is accomplished as we, instead of redoubling our own efforts, simply embrace what the Spirit is doing in us.” To embrace what the Spirit is doing in us is relational and relationships take time to formalize. It’s one of the struggles of church as a whole today – we are such a ‘now’ society – charge me now, fix me now, make me feel good now. We want a faith defibrillator: “Clear!” – yet what anybody who’s been connected to the Spirit of God for a long time will tell you – the magic is in the hard work of relationship over time.
Richard Rohr speaks into this magical mystery this way. “Many mystics,” he writes, “speak of the God-experience as simultaneously falling into an abyss and being grounded. This sounds like a contradiction, but in fact, when you allow yourself to fall into the abyss—into hiddenness, limitlessness, unknowability, a void without boundaries—you discover it’s somehow a rich, supportive, embracing spaciousness where you don’t have to ask (or answer) the questions of whether you’re right or wrong. You’re being held and so you do not need to try to “hold” yourself together.” Please reflect on that. You’re being held and so you don’t need to try to hold yourself together. This might be the ultimate paradox of the God-experience: “falling into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:31).
This is Paul’s effort when he uses one the great metaphors of the Christian life – adoption. Paul is writing to Roman Christians who know deeply how complicated a Roman adoption process was. The ritualistic release of a child by their biological father in this time in Rome was essentially unheard of. The biological father had binding/legal rights over his children their entire lives. To release that was a grueling, complicated process which made it a rare and difficult experience. In the most binding of legal ways, if the child got a new father via adoption, that child became a complete heir and shareholder of all that belonged to the adopting father. The old life of the adopted person was completely wiped out – all debts were cancelled – nothing remained. He was regarded as a new person entering into a new life with which the past had nothing over him whatsoever. One of the legalities included the requirement of seven witnesses to the court case, seven individuals who could verify down the road that the adoption had taken place. Paul says that God’s very own Spirit witnesses with our own spirit that we really are God’s child. That’s the new charge. That’s the power source. That’s what we plug into – the trust of that new relationship. It’s magical – and not in the crude sense of the word but in the mysterious sense of what the deepest of relationships must hold together. It is uniquely the work of the Spirit to help you do what the writer of Proverbs says: “to build the house of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:1) and hold the tension along the day-in-day-out journey. When you are in relationship with Christ – you begin to trust that magical connection far and away from doctrinal formulas and bumper sticker answers. You begin to move into a relationship that is less black and white and more embodied with the awe and stunning nature of color – like a sunset kindly bowing out over the edge of the ocean.
Brian Andreas, artist and poet, dove into this understanding when a producer of sorts said of his many black and white sculptures, “Please don’t talk to me again until you have some color.” With new motivation, he dove into the depths of color and everything took off from there. It was no longer a black and white formula but a relationship with art that had a multi-colored-life all on its own. He created a series called StoryPeople, fence boards turned colorful people who told secrets, imparting wisdom in 50-100 words. Courtney, a fan and follower, shared Secret #43 with me this week which says: “There’s magic everywhere, all the time and when you’re having a hard time seeing it, it’s usually because you’re thinking, ‘Well, if it was really magic, it’d look like something else.’” How often is the magical charge of God found in the everyday silences… the consistent prayers… the steady songs of the soul. Andreas goes on to say, “You may have very good reasons why something is NOT possible, but don’t be surprised if someone else goes ahead and does it anyway because they have very good reasons why it is.”
For the follower of Jesus, ‘possible’ is home. Hope is home. The Greek word Paul uses in verse 19 for eager expectation is one that describes the attitude of a person who “scans the horizon, leaning forward, eagerly searching the distance for the first signs of the breaking dawn of glory. To Paul, life was not a weary, defeated waiting; it was a throbbing, vivid expectation.” It doesn’t mean we don’t live in the battles and struggles of life – if we took the time to go down the rows of this sanctuary and share our heartaches and addictions and things overcome and things we’re still overcoming – we’d hear the realities of the pain of this life. But we’re sitting here this morning as those who live with a throbbing, vivid expectation. We live the pains of this world but we also live in Christ. We see not only the despair of this world but we see beyond it to God. We don’t see only the consequences of sin but we are charged by the mercy and love of God. The Christian waits, not for death, but for life. This is why Paul can say to the Roman church, “Ditch the formulas and plug into the Spirit.” Verses 22-25, he says, “The Spirit of God is rising within us. Waiting does not diminish us; any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.” I’ve yet to meet a new mother who doesn’t see a magical mystery in the expectant journey and ultimate birth of her child. She has incredible strength to carry, grow and deliver this gift but also seems to know she could not possibly have developed this life alone. Call it miracle. Call it faith. Call it magic.
One my favorite Coldplay songs is called Magic. It’s simplistic in style and lyric but builds from a simple bass line to a euphoric symphony of sorts. It’s a song that landed on their 2014 album called Ghost Stories, whose cover holds the wing of a Dove. It talks of heartbreak and brokenness and yet something mysteriously magical “when I’m next to you.” It ends with this: “And if you were to ask me after all that we’ve been through, “Do I still believe in magic?” Oh yes I do. Yes I do. Of course I do.”
Chris Martin calls it Ghost Stories. I call it Holy Ghost Stories. He pictures a Dove. I see it as God’s peace. He calls the song, Magic. I call it Mystery. He’s singing to Gwyneth Paltrow. I’m singing to God. Regardless, there’s something to this magic when it comes to relationships. Jesus knew it. Paul knew it. Chris Martin knows it. The formulas always break down. The magic is the mystery that holds us together as we navigate the brokenness. Where’s my charger? It’s within. Trust it. Hold it even as it holds you. Nurture it even as it sustains you. And if you were to ask me after all that the Spirit of God and I have been through, “Do I still believe… even when the mystery is all I’ve got?” Oh yes I do. Yes I do. Of course I do.
 Idea about idoltry of stuff related to marriage versus the love/relational aspect of marriage was inspired by Michael Gungor’s work in “The Crowd, the Critic and the Muse.” Woodsley Press. 2012. Pg. 120.
 From The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Eugene Petersen.
 As influenced by William Barclay’s commentary on “The Letter to the Romans.” Westminster Press. 1975.